THE BLOG

Understanding Sufi Spirituality

06/01/2015 05:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

In 2012, a militant group wielding crude shovels and pickaxes damaged the ancient Sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Mali. The militant group, known as Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), attacked the city's ancient mosques and mausoleums associated with local Sufis, arguing that shrine worshipping is offensive to Shariah. "Shrines are haram. We will destroy them all, without exception," said the group. The assault on Sufi shrines alarmed the world. The United Nations placed Timbuktu mosques on the List of World Heritage in Danger. The faith-filled violence against the concept and artifacts of Sufi spirituality reignites a broader question whether Sufi spirituality is compatible with Shariah. Small-minded versions of Islam emanating from pedestrian groups within the Muslim world undermine Sufi Spirituality that forges alliances among diverse religions and denominations to lead human species to a common and universal spirituality.

Over the centuries, the Orientalists (a breed of Western scholars who studied Islamic history and culture in the period of colonialism) have been censorious of Shariah but appreciative of Sufism. The dichotomy continues. In nurturing this dichotomy, some Western scholars are anti-Shariah, some are unacquainted with Islam; some are motivated to moderate what they perceive as the "excesses of Shariah", such as persecution of religious minorities, subjugation of women, and imposition of harsh criminal punishments. Unfortunately, scholars bereft of mysticism are incapable of understanding the Sufi ways because intellectualized scholarship can barely see beyond the walls of argumentation.

Muslim Sufis strive to expand law's space for tolerance, egalitarianism, and spiritual diversity. However, no version of Sufism can discard Shariah without undermining Islamic law. Lawless Sufism does little to improve a satisfying way of life for most Muslims. Law is indispensable for the construction and maintenance of an ordered society. Equally true, however, is the fact that law without enlightened criticism leads to cruelty. Contemporary opposition to Shariah in the West and denunciation of Sufism in some Muslim communities, both are misguided. (For more explanation, see)

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Sufis are made differently from jurists and judges. There are no schools or universities that offer certificates or degrees to become Sufis. It requires years of education and professional knowledge for a person to be a jurist, judge, or learned person. Shariah judges and jurists acquire special knowledge after years of studying the Qur'an, the Prophet's Sunnah, the fiqh, and Islamic secular law found in modern constitutions, legislation, and treaties. By contrast, Sufis may or may not begin as scholars of law. Sufis are cultivated in the veiled folds of knowledge, mystery, intuition, worship, wanderings, and purity. The Sufi seeks, and eventually lives in, a world free of ego, greed, gluttony, intemperance, ingratitude, envy, jealousy, lust, demons, kings, queens, and fools.

Much like ordinary Muslims, Sufis subscribe to the five obligations of Shariah. The Shariah mandates that Muslims believe in One God and in the prophecy of Muhammad, say the daily five prayers, fast in the month of Ramadhan, give zakat (charity), and perform the hajj (pilgrimage) if they can afford it. Sufis discharge these five obligations day and night. In fact, most Sufis do more than minimal observance of the five obligations. They say optional prayers throughout the day, fast throughout the year, and generously give charity. Every moment of their life is devoted to the remembrance of God. They pray during the day and during the night, give charity openly and secretly, remember God boisterously and wordlessly, and send salutations to all Prophets by their tongues and hearts.

Since the introduction of Islam in the seventh century, the province of Khorasan has been the most cherished homeland for Sufis. Khorasan (comprised of numerous cities including Nishapur, Balkh, Ghazni, Merv, Samarkand, and Bukhara) nurtured great hadith-collectors, scientists, jurists, and Sufis of Islam. The seventh-century Iraq, when its cultural identity was Mesopotamian more than Arab, was a favorite abode of master Sufis. Najaf, an Iraqi town where Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib is buried, excels in Sufi spirituality.

Sufis have always lived, openly and secretly, in cities and villages of Egypt. Fallen to militarism, modern Egyptians appear to have drifted away from Sufi spirituality. Morocco, particularly the city of Fez, is blessed with the Sufi heritage, opening the way for West African Muslims to experience the raptures of mysticism. Pakistan and India remain most hospitable to Sufi spirituality as the people in this region seek to reconcile various religious traditions.

Unfortunately, Muslims are divided over Sufi spirituality. Some misguided governments and clerical organizations are anti-Sufi. For the most part, however, Muslim communities respond kindly to Sufi spirituality. Muslims in Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India are wide open to the teachings of Sufis. Muslims in these countries see no contradiction between Islamic law and Sufi spirituality.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and some other Gulf mini-states have little reverence for Sufi spirituality and see Islamic mysticism as a threat to the integrity of Islam. Many governments are suspicious of Sufis because Sufis are unlikely to support royal families, kingships, and other forms of power that elevate some families over others. Despite official hostility to Sufi spirituality in some countries, Sufis in all Muslim nations continue to influence individuals, families, towns, and communities.

Sufi spirituality is not a separate sect of Islam. Nor is Sufi spirituality more aligned with the Shia or the Sunni sect. While Iranian culture and sensibilities have greatly influenced the construction and development of mysticism, Sufi spirituality is not a branch of Shia theology. Most prominent Sufis have been raised with the Sunni faith. More recently, the Wahhabis have been vociferously opposed to Sufi spirituality. Many attacks on Sufi shrines are inspired by the theology of Wahhabism. In a protracted contest, however, generous Sufi spirituality will likely win over narrow-minded sectarianism.